Get the Coupons, Get the Groceries, Skip the Clipping

If you, like most people, don’t like grocery coupons because of the hassle of clipping, filing, and sorting through them, there is an online solution for you.  We all know about getting coupon codes or printing coupons online through manufacturer, supermarket, and independent sites, but a Procter & Gamble and an AOL website offer something even better – online coupons that can be uploaded directly to your store card.  Once you register your store card at P&G eSAVER and Shortcuts.com, their respective programs, you can scroll through the available coupons and upload as many as you want.  The two programs are affiliated with almost all of the same stores, including Kroger and Safeway, and allow you to use each coupon once.

P&G eSAVER’s coupons cover a wide range of products manufactured by Procter & Gamble, from Pringles to Bounty paper towels and from Nyquil to the Swiffer line.  The number of coupons offered at Shortcuts.com is smaller but covers some popular items such as Cheerios, Nature Valley granola bars, and Betty Crocker products.

New coupons are issued periodically, and there is no penalty for unused coupons.  And just like a paper coupon, they can also be combined with store discounts.  That means that once they are uploaded to your store card, you can forget about them and still get a nice surprise at the check out counter.  All without clipping, filing, or holding up the line as you shuffle through your wallet for coupons.

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Perks of Recession

One of the perks of recession that I have received is 10,000 complimentary qualification miles from Delta’s SkyMiles program to keep my Silver Medallion status.  I earned my Silver Medallion status two years ago but haven’t traveled much since last November (not as a result of the economy), so it was due to expire.  I was surprised by Delta’s generosity, however – without any prompting, I recently got an email from them telling me they were giving me those extra qualification miles to ensure that I get to keep my Silver Medallion status until the end of next year.  This status allows me to earn a 25% mileage bonus on flights with Delta or any of its airline partners (such as Northwest, Continental, and Delta) and gives me priority  in boarding and waiting lists.  The only downside is that I don’t get to redeem these miles for future flights.

Share with us your “perks of the recession” story in the comments section!

A Note of Encouragement

I am a firm believer in loyalty programs, but I know that with some of them it almost feels pointless to give your number/card since it looks like it could take years to reach a reward level.  But these past two weeks were great for me on that front, and I want to offer you a note of encouragement.

Two weekends ago, I received $2.50 Extra Bucks back (a free ½ gallon of milk or cereal?) from CVS for purchases I made during the spring.  A few days later, I redeemed $20 in cash back I had accumulated on Discover for a $25 gift card on Banana Republic, which I used over the weekend to get a top for free!  I use my Discover card mostly for purchases that give me a 5% cash back bonus, which means it takes me a little longer to accumulate cash back than if I used it as my primary card, but I still usually accumulate $20 every 3 or 4 months.

A $5 certificate on Best Buy also came through my Inbox last week.  Their Reward Zone program gives $5 for every $250 spent, and the netbook I bought for my mom last month was $250 and some change.  In the mail, I also got a $10 certificate from DSW just to welcome me to their rewards program (I have only ever made one purchase there before) – and there, $10 goes quite a long way.  And, a year since we first started using OpenTable, we finally reached the points for a $20 gift certificate, which can be redeemed at any member restaurant.  Admittedly, $20 is not much compared to how much we spent dining out over this past year, but being rewarded for using a service that makes life more convenient (no calling restaurants for reservations) is always great.

And in terms of future rewards, thanks in part to my AAdvantage/Citibank credit card, I recently reached enough miles on American Airlines for a free flight to Europe.  While I haven’t booked my ticket yet, I am planning on going to England in a month, and if my recent experiences with reward programs are any indication, I expect redeeming my miles for a flight will be a breeze, too.

Some rewards programs are obviously more generous than others, and I think that the instances in which it may make sense to spend money just to get a reward are few and far apart.  Nonetheless, if you diligently use your loyalty number/card whenever you do make a purchase, there just might be a reward coming your way sooner or later.

Rollover – Not in Your Bed, But to a Roth IRA

With less than three weeks of work left, my calendar is quickly filling up with farewell lunches.  I have not, however, neglected other more important things related to my departure, such as making sure I will get paid for unused vacation days and that my calculation is the same as HR’s.  ALSO, I have been researching on what to do with my 401k once I leave, and below is a list of dos and don’ts.

  1. Do not withdraw  – Apparently one of the biggest mistakes that people make when they leave a job is to withdraw the money from their 401k.  Not only will you be making a HUGE dent to your retirement funds, you will be paying heavily for it – income tax for the distribution plus an additional 10% tax  (the IRS says tax, I say penalty) for withdrawing before you hit the magic age of 59 1/2.
  2. Do not just leave it in its current account – Now is the time to assess how well the account has been growing.  Do you like the investment options offered by your company and the investment company they have selected?  Are you satisfied with the services?  If not, you are free to take your business elsewhere, whether to one you select individually or another 401k account offered by your new job.
  3. Do roll it over – If you do decide to transfer your 401k to a new account, do a rollover.  Once a check gets cut to you – even if you deposit it directly into a new retirement account – the IRS will consider that a withdrawal and you’ll be hit with the income tax and the 10% penalty.  It’s better to play it safe and arrange for a direct transfer, so that no money passes through your hands.
  4. Do consider a Roth IRA – As mentioned in previous posts, you contribute post-tax dollars to a Roth IRA but it then grows tax-free.  This is what I plan to do with my 401k account.  And while I’ll get hit with taxes in the beginning (because I contributed only pre-tax dollars to my 401k initially and Uncle Sam always gets his cut), I will never have to pay taxes on any subsequent earnings.  This is crucial, because I expect that I will earn more money as I get older and will be taxed at a higher tax bracket.  So this is not just a matter of paying taxes now vs. paying taxes later, it’s also a matter of paying less taxes now vs. paying more taxes later.  Further, I’m not required to roll over the entire balance at once.  I can control how much I want to roll over each year, so I can spread out my tax burden over several years.

The Alternative to Car Ownership

If you are an urban dweller, Zipcar offers you an alternative option to buying a car – sharing a car with everybody else in the city.  You can join the Cambridge-based company, which started with the vision of lowering pollution and the number of cars on the road, on either an Occasional Driving or Extra Value Plan.  The cost of reserving a vehicle is $9.25-14.50 per hour, depending on the model of the car and whether it is a weekday or weekend.  With the Occasional Driving Plan, you have to pay a $25 application and a $50 annual fee, but there is no monthly commitment.  Zipcar also offers four Extra Value Plans, differing on the the level of monthly commitment ($50-250), but the annual fee is waived and you get an additional 10-15% driving discount.  There are also daily rates under both plans (you are automatically given the lowest cost between the hourly and daily rate when you make a reservation), and there are no extra charges for gas or insurance regardless of the plan you choose.

Further, depending on your school, work, or even residential building affiliation, Zipcar may lower or waive the annual and application fees and even give you a lower hourly rate (in the application page you can search for affiliations which might get you the discount).  And if you know someone who is already a Zipcar member, you can also ask him/her to refer you, and Zipcar will give $50 in driving credit, which can be split between the two of you whichever way you want.  And if you sign up today or next Friday, you can get another $10 in driving credit – just use promo code DCFRIENDS.*

If you only need a car a few times each month, being a zipster would be a huge cost savings measure.  Instead of paying $200-300 in financing or leasing payment, and another $100-200 for car insurance, parking, gas and routine maintenance each month, you will only be paying for the hours you are using the Zipcar (plus the application and annual fee, if any).  And as a bonus, Zipcar has a variety of vehicles to choose from, so you could be driving a Volvo one week and a Mini Cooper the next.

Look chic, save money and save the planet?  Sounds like a smart idea to me.

* This is from an email I got from Zipcar: “On any Friday in July, if you refer your friend to Zipcar and they sign up that same Friday, you both receive $60 in driving credit instead of $50. In order to get $60 in credit for referring a friend, he or she needs to use the promo code DCFRIENDS when filling out our online application. After that, email our marketing coordinator, Lauren  (lsherman@zipcar.com), with your full name, your friend’s full name, and your Zipcard number. Just let Lauren know that your friend is applying, and she’ll make sure that everything is in order.  This cannot be combined with our standard referral offer, and it cannot be applied retroactively.

Car Buying 101

One of the most important rites of passage in America is getting a driver’s license.  And while you might have been licensed to drive someone else’s car since you were 15 1/2 or 16, the other part of this rite of passage is actually owning your first vehicle.  So without further ado:

Leasing – Car leasing is actually the opposite of car buying.  Like the lease on your aparment, car leasing is essentially renting a car.  But I would like to talk about it, because leasing a car certainly feels like you are buying a car.  Your monthly payments are lower than if you were to finance it, though your car insurance might be higher.  This option allows you to continually drive around a nice brand-new car.  The caveat is that at the end of the lease (usually 3 years), you have to return the car and it has to be in relatively good condition.  So despite diligently paying your monthly payments for the past 3 years, sadly the car will not be yours, although you do have the option to buy the car at the residual amount stated on your lease contract.

Financing – Continuing with our real estate analogy, car financing means you take out a loan to buy a car and you have about 3-6 years to pay off the loan, much like a mortgage.  The financing terms, such as the interest rate and length of time to pay off the loan, will depend on your credit score (which we will talk more about in a later post) and how much you can afford each month.  If you want to finance your car for 5 versus 3 years, for example, your monthly payments will be lower, but you will be paying more in interest in the long run. 

Financing limits the kinds of cars you can have since you should only buy cars you can afford.  The silver lining, however, is that you will actually own the car at the end of the financing period.  And financing is available for both new and used cars.  I don’t believe there is an absolute best choice between new and used cars, just a better choice depending on each person.  If the used car you are buying is only 1-2 years old though, you might want to shell out the extra few thousand for the new version.  The cash of clunkers act and the vehicle sales tax deduction also make for good incentives to buy new, at least during this year (click here to read more).

For more information, such as car reviews and pricing, check out Edmunds.